The A to Z Challenge – I is for “I woke up one day…”


Ever woken up and the first thought that goes through your mind, where the hell am I?

It usually happens when I travel which was quite often, to a place where I haven’t been before, and more often than not, a long way from home.

A hotel room, sometimes they were big, sometimes quite small, opulent, or very basic, a view of snow-capped mountains, or pigeon coops. The result is the same, that first look out the window is nothing like that of out your own.

Like waking up in a different bed, in that different room with that different roof, different walls, paintings, lights, and, when you look sideways, clock.

Often, it took a few extra seconds after waking up, to try and remember all the relevant details. Like where you came from, what airline brought you, which cab you took to the hotel, and which room you were in.

The trouble was, try as they might, hotel rooms were not like most of today’s houses bedrooms.

It was this in mind when I went through the same checklist trying to figure out how it was possible there was a woman in my bed when I couldn’t remember meeting one or bringing one back to the room, simply because I didn’t. I know if I had or hadn’t.

Wouldn’t I?

The other troubling fact was that this time I had agreed to bring my wife along on this junket, just to prove that I was not having an affair, and now she was missing. That woman that was beside me in the bed was not my wife, and I had no idea who she was.

And, as I watched, she rolled over and opened her eyes. In the silence that followed, along with several changes in her expression, perhaps she was making the same assessment of her situation as I had a few minutes before.

The last expression was of surprise, then, “Who are you?”

Not what I was expecting. I was expecting outraged indignation, followed by a threatening call to the police. It could be argued, since all the rooms in the hotel looked the same, that I had intruded in her room, instead of her in mine.

I doubled checked again that this was my room, then said, “I could ask the same question.”

It took a few more seconds to focus on her. Definitely younger than I by a few years, and very attractive. I had to wonder if I had, how I’d convinced her to join me, or equally so, why I would have entertained the notion of having an affair. I may have thought about it, from time to time, but I would not have acted on it. I was content with what I already had.

“The last thing I remember was my husband bringing me a drink from the bar. We were having lunch in the Starlight restaurant. We were here celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary. What do you last remember?”

“Lunch with my wife, down in the Starlight restaurant. I brought her along to allay her fears I was not having an affair.” Which sounded as lame aloud as it did in my head.

“And yet here we are, fulfilling a prophecy.”

I noticed the quick look under the sheets to see if she was dressed, and in that flash, I could see that she had underclothes on. The dress she had been wearing was neatly folded over the back of a lounge chair and her shoes neatly placed beside it. Another glance, sideways, noted my clothes were folded neatly on the other lounge chair, and I was in my pajama bottom.

“But we are not having an affair, are we?” That also sounded lame, but in my head, it held some significance though I’m not sure why.

“I don’t know you, nor have I seen you before. I don’t even know your name. My name is Glenda Matheson. My husband is Robert Matheson.”

“The Congressman, who’s about to announce he’s running for President in the next election?”

“Yes.”

“Then if you are seen here, with me…”

The implications of being caught in a compromising situation with a Congressman’s wife, and even worse, one with such a high public profile, it would be on every front page of every newspaper, and on every TV news channel in the country. Explain that to a wife who was mildly suspicious that you were having an affair.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about.” She rose and sat on the side of the bed, then collapsed backward.

“What happened?” I took a step towards her, but something made me stop.

Instead, I looked sideways and realized what woke me was the sunlight streaming in through the open window. I was sure before I left the room, those curtains were drawn, certainly enough that no one could see in. Now, from the building across the road, and reasonably close, it would be possible to see into the room from a room there. I moved the other window and drew the curtains, darkening the room.

A light came on from her side of the bed.

“People could see in?”

“If they wanted to, but normally it wouldn’t matter. If they were looking, I’d say it was too late.”

“Except there’s a Congressman’s wife in one of the rooms, and a hoard of photographers following them around. You have no idea what fame can do to your privacy.”

I could imagine. And she was right, of course, I’d seen the media coverage of anyone who had a high profile, and they were literally hounded.

“Are you alright?” she was still lying down.

“Dizzy. Lightheaded. This is how I feel when I have two sleeping pills instead of one.” Then, a few seconds later, “and the same taste in my mouth.”

“You were drugged?”

“Are you dizzy, feeling lightheaded?”

It didn’t seem so, but it was possible. “I didn’t drug you if that’s what you’re thinking. The only time I’ve seen you is in the paper, and even then, I didn’t take much notice. If I had, I would have know who you were.”

She was about to say something when there was a pounding on the door. “Mr. Jackson, are you in there. This is the police.”

My heart just about stopped.

Then, almost an instant later there was a voice behind me, a woman, “If you don’t want to end up dead, come with me now.”

Both of us immediately turned in the direction of the voice. Middle-aged, conservatively dressed, could be a school teacher.

“Who are you?”

“Someone who is trying to save your life. Now. The both of you. Before they kick the door in.”

Another few seconds and more pounding on the door set us both in motion. She grabbed her clothes, I grabbed mine, and we followed her through a connecting door, and she closed it just before we heard the door to my room open. The room had another connecting door that led into another room, whose door was in the side wall. After locking one, she came over, opened the third and we went through, out into a passage, and then into a stairwell where on the other side she locked it.

“Get dressed. We have to go.”

“Where are you taking us?” Glenda asked. She had regained her senses, enough to ask relevant questions.

“Away from here.”

“Why?”

“Because the police officers that entered that room have been ordered to kill you.”

….

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – H is for – “How is this possible…”


It started with a simple memo.

After several years of bad management, the company had decided to make a clean sweep and change upper management. Of course, that sort of change was driven by the volatility of the company’s share price and dividends, and shareholders’ discontent. Productivity was down because of low employee morale driven by what was labelled a ‘toxic work environment’. This led to production problems, quality control issues, and falling sales.

Something had to be done.

The new broom, as it was come to be known as, had made several far sweeping changes, one of which, to counter the discontent of its employees, was to institute the anonymous complaint. Any employee could make a complaint without fear of reprisals. In the past, those that had were vilified, demoted, or sacked. Now, the new broom had decided that employee input would improve the workplace, improve productivity, and provide the way back to the halcyon days.

Or so we thought.

Two phones, each on a bedside table, both chimed to indicate an incoming message.

I’d been staring at the roof, contemplating the start of a new week in a place where I had decided was not where I wanted to be. Beside me, still asleep, was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but she was not sure about making a commitment. She’d been down that road before, and it failed miserably and was taking it slow.

I told her slow was my middle name.

I leaned over and picked up the phone, more out of curiosity than anything else, but fascinated that both phones could go off at the same time.

“In the light of a host of complaints about the catering division, it has been decided that the staff cafeteria will cease operations at the end of the month. It has for a number of years been the subject of employee dissatisfaction and the result of an extensive investigation to the feasibility of keeping it going, given the economic climate and fiscal position of the company the only viable decision is to cease operations. Staff currently working in the catering department will be transferred to other positions within the company.”

How could this be possible? I had seen the feasibility study relating to the cafeteria, and it was ‘feasible’ to keep it going. They were right though, there had been a host of complaints, but that was because the catering manager had no idea how to run a large-scale cafeteria that churned out upwards of 5,000 meals a day. Even Olga, who was right here with me now, had said that it was the most poorly managed operation she had ever worked in.

I tossed the phone back on the bedside table and got back under the covers. Too early and too cold to get out of bed.

It woke Olga.

“Trouble in paradise?”

Paradise was her euphemism for work. She had become increasingly desponded as I about working there. In her case, as q waitress in the cafeteria, it was a job she could take or leave. For me, loitering on the fringes of middle management, not so much. Not if I wanted to keep the flash apartment and upscale car.

“They have dumped the cafeteria.”

I had expected her to leap up in indignation. It barely registered on the Richter scale. “And what did you expect?” She raised her head off the pillow. “They were never going to implement your suggestions, it would make Commissar Bland look like a fool, like the fool above him.”

Her analogy transposing our fearless leaders with those back in the old Soviet Union were always an insight to what she had experienced back home before she emigrated with her parents. Commissar Bland was a dictator, and not a man to cross. She cared little about him, and treated him, like the others did, as a joke.

“So much for the new broom,” I muttered.

“You are so naive Petr, but like home, change means no change, just different faces and words that all mean the same thing.”

Petr was her pet name for me, named after an old mentor of hers.

“Aren’t you the one losing your job. Doesn’t it bother you?”

“I will become best factory worker. We are very adaptable. You should try not to lose any sleep.”

She lay down again and snuggled closer.

I left her at the fourth floor where my office was located, and she would continue up to the next, the location of the cafeteria.

If I remember correctly, the current CEO when the factory manager, had always wanted to reclaim the cafeteria space for a new modernised production line, but the old guard had seen the benefit of keeping it despite the cost, as a means of keeping its workforce. Even twenty years ago, it would not have made a discussion topic, even in jest.

But times change.

Herman, another of the middle management fringe dwellers, and had also seen the need to have something to ‘bribe’ the workforce. We’d only been talking about it with others on our level the other day when all manner of rumours were drifting through our building.

He was loitering in the passage, obviously waiting for me.

“You’ve seen the message?”

I nodded.

“Hell of a way to kill an institution?”

I walked into my cubicle and dumped my bag on the floor. As a first act, the new broom removed all the offices, and put everyone into an open plan, where it was easier to communicate with others and removed the barriers walls and doors presented. The jury was still out on whether it worked, I could still never get to see the people I needed to.

He followed me in and sat in a chair in the corner. I sat on the desk, it was not a large cubicle.

“It was a drain on profits. The world has moved on from pandering to workforces. It seems dividends are more important. I’m sure this will not be the only change.”

“Like managers losing their cars and credit cards, except for the upper echelon. I don’t think you’ll see them close the executive dining room.”

Yes, it was only a matter of time before that morsel would raise its head under the banner of hypocrisy.

“Probably not. But remember, we used to build cars once, and it was good advertising to hand them out to all and sundry. Now, trying to do the right thing costs too much.”

My phone on the desk rang and startled me. It was still quiet, the bulk of the cubicle population hadn’t arrived yet. My guess they were gathering in coffee shops discussing the news.

I picked up receiver mid ring, then said, “Yes?” I refused to follow the official answering sequence advised by the new broom.

Hesitation, then, “O’Hara from Administration. Can you come and see me, nine a.m.?”

Why? There was no way anyone could know I sent that memo, and I wasn’t on management’s radar, it had been O’Hara himself who told me to keep up the good work, the coded message that said I was not on the latest promotion list.

“I’ll see you then.” I was not going to say ‘yes, sir’ like other management hopefuls. O’Hara was not someone who could be buttered up, a fact only I seemed to be aware of.

“Who was that?”

“O’Hara.”

“Then your days are numbered. He never calls except to say you have a promotion or you’re fired. You aren’t on the promotion list.”

“How can you be sure?”

No one was supposed to know who was on that list for sure, it was a closely guarded secret. Herman said he knew someone who knew someone who knew Herman’s PA, and had been told who was on the list. So far, in the last two lists, he had been right about us two.

Perhaps he was right. I was going to get fired.

“Have I ever been wrong?”

Technically, no. But I never got any other names of those who were on the list. Maybe it was better to wait, and be disappointed then.

“Well, we’ll soon find out.”

It took twenty minutes to walk from the old administration building to the new, built recently on the outskirts of the company site, on what was once the carpark. The carpark had been relocated under the new administration building, and it gave management the perfect excuse to charge us to park our cars.

A Lot of employees had switched from car to the train, less than the weekly cost of the carpark. Another new broom initiative; getting people out of cars and onto public transport, their contribution to easing global warming.

None of us, other than those in the new administration building had passes, so we had to sign in as visitors on the ground floor, even though we spent a lot of time travelling back and forth, and visiting other members of our departments who had been moved from the old building.

No, not a new broom initiative, just the result of an obtuse security chief.

Getting the pass made me five minutes late, and O’Hara didn’t like tardy people.

A glare followed me from the door of his office to the seat in front of his desk where he motioned me to sit. The offices were better here and were offices not cubicles. Everyone else wanted to be transferred to the new office. I didn’t. Too far away from Olga.

“I called you over to discuss the ten-point plan to save the cafeteria.”

“What ten-point plan?” Perhaps they did know who wrote the memo.

“I had every written complaint checked to see whose writing it was. Next time, write it on the computer and print it out.”

I shrugged. “I did it for a laugh. Nothing’s going to change in this place.”

“You sound like you don’t like working here?”

“I do. Most days. Today, though, is one reason to leave. That cafeteria has been here since the day the factory started. The employers, once, were involved in getting employees housing, even had their own estate, and assisted them to buy cars. It was a novel thought in an age where employers, well, some employers, considered their employees assets.”

“We still do.”

I shook my head. I guess if you wanted to be in management you had to believe and repeat the new mantra. I’d heard about the management team building conferences.

“So, we’re going back to our original values?”

“This is neither the time, nor do we have the fiscal viability. But it seems some of the board members consider your proposals need fleshing out into a plan with costings so they can make a more balanced judgement.”

“Unfortunately, you just uttered the two words that make that idea redundant, fiscal viability. There is no possible way in this current world we live in that a cafeteria would ever be viable, unless we charged five-star restaurant prices for the meals.”

“Humour me and do it anyway.”

“Not my department.”

“Fixed. You now are temporarily assigned to ‘rebuilding and restructuring’. You can add three others to your team. You have a week.”

“And if I say no.”

“It’s that or your resignation. You have been given an opportunity, take it.”

I shrugged. I’d heard about the new broom’s method of culling. Give them jobs that they can’t possibly find a solution to. Devious, but devastatingly effective. One last hurrah before being tossed on the executive scrap heap.

When I came out of his office, Herman was waiting in the outer office.

“You too,” I said.

“Nine of us. Sounds like there’s a new project in the wind.”

I didn’t burst his bubble. Ten more budding executives were getting the push. I sighed.

At least now Olga and I could go visit her family on the shores of the Black Sea. There was no excuse not to.

And, yes, it really did start with a memo.

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – F is for “For heaven’s sake…”

It was a combination of circumstances, not all related, but coming at me out of left field, circumstances that would prevent me from going home when I said I would.

I had every intention of getting there and as testament to that, I had got to the airport with baggage two hours before departure time, and had reached the departure gate with 20 minutes to spare, ready to board the plane.

I’d even got a business class ticket so I could travel in style.

What precipitated the set of circumstances? A simple phone call. I should have turned it off five minutes before boarding, but I didn’t but because I’d forgotten to, simply because I’d been distracted.

The call was from Penelope, my hard working and self-sacrificing personal assistant. I had offered to take her with me so we could work on a business plan that had to be presented the day after I was scheduled to return, but she had declined, which when I thought about it, if she hadn’t it might have created problems for both of us.

With a huge restructure going on, I was running behind in getting it completed, and had promised to finish it while at home.

The call: to tell me I had left a folder with vital research back on my desk, and she coming to the airport to deliver it, and she was, in fact, was in the terminal building when the boarding call came.

When I met her at the gate, only a few passengers had to be loaded. Being business class had afforded me a few extra minutes. File delivered, I left her looking exasperated and headed down the boarding ramp.

I was last aboard, and seconds after being seated, the door was closed.

I quickly typed and sent a message to tell everyone I was on the plane, eliciting two responses. My mother was glad that I was finally coming, the other from my elder brother, saying he would believe it when he saw me.

It was not without reason; I’d been in this situation before; on the plane ready to go.

Last time the plane didn’t leave the gate, a small problem that caused a big delay, so much so, I couldn’t get home.

Not this time. There was a slight lurch as the push tractor started pushing the plane back from the gate. A minute or so later the pilot fired up the engines, a sure sign of a definite departure. Nothing could stop us now.

It was a reassuring vibration that ran through the plane before the engines settled into a steady whine, a sign of an older plane that had flown many miles in the past and would into the future.

We stopped while the push tractor was disengaged and then the engines picked up speed and we lurched forward, heading towards the runway for take-off. In some airports this could take a long time, and tonight it seemed to take forever.

I looked out the window and saw a backdrop of lights against the darkness, but no indication where we were. It didn’t look like the end of the runway because I could not see any other planes waiting to take off.

Then the engines revved louder and for a pronged period. We didn’t move, but remained where we were, until the engines returned to what might be called idling speed

It was followed by an announcement from the pilot, “This is the captain speaking. We have encountered an anomaly with one of the engines, so to be on the safe side, we are returning to the gate and will have the engineers have a look at it. I do not anticipate this should take longer than 30 minutes.”

A collective groan went through the airplane. Those savvy with these problems would know that the odds were we would not be leaving tonight. The airport curfew would see to that.

But a miracle could still occur.

The plane then started back to the terminal. Another message from the pilot told us we would not be going back to the gate, but to a holding area. Time to have a glass of champagne the steward was offering before going back to the terminal for what, an interminable wait.

It seemed the gods did not want me to go back home.

When we got back to the parking spot, three buses and four delays later, I headed for one of the several bars to get a drink, and perhaps something decent to eat.

Then I saw Penelope, sitting by herself, a glass of champagne sitting half drunk in front of her.

“What are you doing here?” I said as I slid onto the stool beside her.

She started, as if she had been somewhere else, and turned to see who it was. The faraway look turned into a smile when she recognised me. “Getting drunk.”

“I thought you were going home.” A nod in the direction of the bartender, followed by pointing to her glass and indicating I wanted two, got instant service.

“I saw an ex heading to a plane with his latest squeeze. Made me feel depressed. I heard your plane was returning so I decided to wait. Better to get drunk with someone you know than drink by yourself, or someone you don’t. I’ve had three offers already.”

I wasn’t surprised. She was very attractive, the sort of woman who was the most popular at any of the work functions but was equally surprising was that she was not with any of those potential suitors. In fact, as far as I knew, she was not in a relationship.

“No one at home to amuse you?” It was not the sort of question I should be asking, because it was really none of my business.

It elicited a sideways glance, as if I stepped over an invisible line.

“Sorry, none of my business.”

She finished off the glass in front of her, just as the new round arrived in front of her. I gave the bartender my credit card and asked him to start a tab. I’d just heard that the plane was going to be another two hours before we’d be leaving.

“I live with two other girls, but they are more interested in finding stray men and getting wasted, not necessarily in that order, and that’s not what I want to do.”

“Get wasted or find stray men?”

I was not sure how anyone had the time and inclination to do that, but a few weeks back I spent two evenings with a friend of mine whose marriage had fallen apart. The people there seemed either desperate or looking for a one-night stand. It had amused me to discover most of them were married, and not divorced, and that the girls knew what to expect.

“Both apparently.”

“How do you expect to find the man of your dreams if you don’t go looking.”

“I am, this place seems as good as any, but the man of my dreams doesn’t exist.”

The bemused expression and the tone of her voice told me she had had more than the one drink before I got there. Even then, judging from several previous parties for work we had attended, she had a much greater capacity for alcohol than I had.

She finished off the glass just brought, and seconds later her eyes seemed glassy. Perhaps it was time for me to put her in a cab and send her home.

“Another,” she said, “and then you can be responsible for me.”

I had no idea what that meant, and I think, judging by the facial expressions, she didn’t really care.

“Perhaps…”

She didn’t let me finish. “Perhaps you should buy me another drink and lighten up.” And the look that came with it told me not to argue the point.

I got the bartender’s attention, and he responded by bringing two fresh glasses and a bottle. I told him to leave it. It gave me a minute or so to contemplate what she meant by ‘lighten up’. I was so used to seeing her work ethic and diligence, this was a different side to her.

I took a sip and could feel her looking at me. A glance took in the near permanent bemused expression.

“Are you going to be alright getting home?” It was probably not the question I should have asked, but in the back of my mind there was a recent briefing given to all of management on the subject of sexual harassment and intra office romances.

“I’m fine. It’s not as if I do this a lot, but the last week has been difficult. Not only for me, but for you too. But you have to admit you put yourself under a lot of pressure.”

She was starting to sound like my conscience. It was something I’d been thinking about on the way to the airport, but decided it was part of the job, and I knew when I accepted the position what it would involve. My predecessor, much older than I was, had fallen on his sword, the pressure destroying his marriage and almost his life.

“So I said, lamely, It goes with the job, unfortunately.”

She shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. They might think it does, but they don’t care. They sit in their ivory tower and watch their minions crash and burn. There’s always someone else waiting in the wings to take your place, believe me.”

It was an interesting perspective, but where did it come from? I knew she had been at the corporation for a number of years, and I had been lucky enough to draw the long straw when having her assigned to me as my PA when I took the position. One of the other executives had lamented my good fortune, but he had also said she was one of the few who were there to guide those management considered were management prospects.

I just thought I was lucky.

“I might end up in that ivory tower one day.”

“Why?”

She turned to look directly at me. It made me uncomfortable now, as it had on other occasions, and I had begun to think it might have something to do with unspoken feelings. I liked her, but I doubted that was reciprocated. And, after the lecture on office romances, I promptly put those feelings in the bottom drawer and locked it.

“Doesn’t everyone aspire to be the best, and climb to the top of the corporate ladder?”

“For that you have to be devious and ruthless, and from what I’ve seen, you’re neither. You’ve heard the expression ‘good guys come last’. It’s true.”

I was guessing from the people she had worked for, she had firsthand experience. My predecessor was a ‘good guy’ and some said he was eaten alive by the office predators. I knew who they were, and avoided them. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t, but when would she have told me? Not tonight, no one could have predicted the plane would break down.

“You’re telling me this now, why?”

“You’re smarter than all of those above you put together. You don’t need them, but they need you. But, you won’t get any concessions, not until you get near the top. By then you will have had to sell your soul to the devil.”

Good to know, on one hand I was about to see my soul to the devil, and on the other that I was smart, just not smart enough to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I noticed she hadn’t touched the latest glass of champagne. Nor was she the languid barfly she’d pretended to be earlier.

“You’re advice, if I’m listening correctly, is that I should be looking for another job.”

“Actually, you shouldn’t be listening to me at all. Too many drinks and I pontificate. Some people become happy, I become,” she shrugged, “unhappy. Take no notice.” She swung around to the front and picked up the glass.

“OK.” I turned around to look at the departures board to see my flight had been cancelled, and I should go to the check in counter. “My plane is completely broken, so it looks like I’m staying home.”

“Or you could take me to dinner.” She looked sideways again, the bemused expression back.

“Wouldn’t that be inappropriate?”

“Only if you were in upper management, married, and asking me to have an affair. Last I looked you’re not in upper management, not married, so there’s no hint of an affair. For heaven’s sake, it’s only dinner.”

She was right on all counts, and it was only dinner.

“Why not?” I said, more to myself than to her.

“Good. And you’d better get me on the plane too. We need to get that report done, and it’ll be an excuse to stay at a hotel. I know you wouldn’t want to stay in your old room at your parents’ house.”

She was right about that too, I had long outgrown them, and staying at home would only lead to arguments. “How could you possibly know that?”

She smiled. “You talk in your sleep.”

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – G is for “Going out of my mind…”


Accidents can happen.

Sometimes they’re your fault, sometimes they’re not.

The accident I was in was not. Late at night driving home from work, a car came speeding out of a side street and T-boned my car.

It could have been worse, though the person who said it had a quite different definition of the word worse than I did.

To start with, I lost three months of my life in a coma, and even when I surfaced, it took another month to realize what had happened. Then came two months of working out my recovery plan.

If that wasn’t trial enough, what someone else might describe as the ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’, my wife of 22 years decided to send me a text that morning, what was six months in hospital, to the day.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but enough is enough. I cannot visit you anymore, and for the sake of both our sanity, I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand. I know what happened isn’t your fault but given the prognosis, I don’t think I can cope with the situation. I need time to think about what will happen next and to do so, I’ll be going home to spend some time with family. Once again, I’m so sorry not to be doing this in person. I’ll let you know what I decide in due course. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for your recovery.”

In other words, goodbye. Her family lived in England, about 12,000 miles away in another hemisphere, and the likelihood of her returning was remote. We had meant to visit them, and had, in fact, booked the tickets shortly before the accident. I guess she couldn’t wait any longer.

My usual nurse came in for the first visit on this shift. She had become the familiar face on my journey, the one who made it worth waking up every morning.

“You look a little down in the dumps this morning. What’s up?”

She knew it couldn’t be for medical reasons because the doctor just yesterday had remarked how remarkable my recovery had been in the last week or so. Even I had been surprised given all the previous negative reports.

“Ever broken up by text?”

“What do you mean?”

“Frances has decided she no longer wants to be involved. I can’t say I blame her, she has put her whole life on hold because of this.”

“That’s surprising. She’s never shown any disappointment.”

“Six months have been a long time for everyone. We were supposed to be going home so she could see her family. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.”

I gave her the phone and she read the message.

Then she handed it back. “That’s goodbye, Tom. I’m sorry. And no, I’ve never had a breakup by text, but I guess there could always be a first time.”

She spent the next ten minutes going through the morning ritual, then said, “I’ve heard there’s a new doctor coming to visit you. Whatever has happened in the last few days had tongues wagging, and you might just become the next modern miracle. Fame and fortune await.”

“Just being able to walk again will be miracle enough.”

That had been the worst of it. The prognosis that it was likely I’d never be able to walk again, or work, and the changes to our lives that would cause. I knew Frances was bitterly disappointed that she might become the spouse who had to spend the rest of her life looking after, and though she had said it didn’t matter, that she would be there for me, deep down I knew a commitment like that took more internal fortitude than she had.

She ran her own business, managed three children into adulthood, and had a life other than what we had together. When I was fit and able, and nothing got in the way, it had worked. Stopping everything to cater to my problems had severely curtailed her life. Something had to give, and it had.

But, as I said, I didn’t blame her. She had tried, putting in a brave face day after day but once the daily visits slipped to every other day, to once a week, I knew then the ship was heading towards the rocks.

This morning it foundered.

I pondered the situation for an hour before I sent a reply. “I believe you have made the right decision. It’s time to call it and going home and take some time to consider what to do next is right. In normal circumstances, we would not be considering any of this, but these are not normal circumstances. But, just in case you are worried about the effect of all of this on me, don’t. I will get over it, whatever the result is, and what you need to do first and foremost is to concentrate on what is best for you. If that means drawing a line on this relationship, so be it. All I want for you is for you to be happy, and clearly, having to contend with this, and everything else on your plate, is not helping. I am glad we had what time we had together and will cherish the memories forever, and I will always love you, no matter what you decide.”

It was heart-felt, and I meant it. But life was not going to be the same without her.

I’d dozed off after sending the message, and only woke again when my usual doctor came into the room on his morning rounds, the usual entourage of doctors and interns in tow. I’d been a great case for sparking endless debate on the best route for my recovery among those fresh out of medical school. Some ideas were radical, others pie in the sky, but one that seemed implausible had got a hearing, and then the go-ahead, mainly because there was little else that apparently could be done.

That doctor, and now another I hadn’t seen before was standing in the front row, rather than at the back.

The doctor in charge went through the basics of the case, as he did every day, mainly because the entourage changed daily. Then, he deferred to the radical doctor as I decided to call her.

She went through the details of a discovery she had made, and the recommendation she’d made as a possible road to recovery, one which involved several radical operations which had been undertaken by the elderly man standing beside her. When I first met him, I thought he was an escaped patient from the psychiatric ward, not the pre-eminent back surgeon reputed to be the miracle worker himself.

It seemed, based on the latest x-rays that a miracle had occurred, but whether it was or not would be known for another week. Then, if all went well, I would be able to get out of bed, and, at the very least, be able to stand on my own. In the meantime, I had endless sessions of physio in the lead-up to the big event. Six months in bed had taken its toll on everything, and the week’s work was going to correct some of that.

It meant there was hope, and despite what I said and thought, hope was what I needed.

There had been ups and downs before this, fuelled by a morning when I woke up and found I could wriggle my toes. It was after the second operation, and I thought, given the amount of pain killers, it had been my imagination.

When I mentioned it, there was some initial excitement, and, yes, it was true, I wasn’t going out of my mind, it was real. The downside was, I couldn’t move anything else, and other than an encouraging sign, as the days passed, and nothing more happened, the faces got longer.

Then, the physiotherapist moved in, and started working on the areas that should be coming back to life. I felt little, maybe the pain killers again, until the next, and perhaps the last operation. I managed to lift my left leg a fraction of an inch.

But we’d been here before, and I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Annabel, the daughter that lived on the other side of the country, finally arrived to visit me. I had thought, not being so far away she might have come earlier, but a few phone calls had sorted out her absence. Firstly, there was no much use visiting a coma patient, second, she was in a delicate stage of her professional career and a break might be the end of it, and thirdly, she accepted that I didn’t want to see her until I was much better.

She was not very happy about it, but it was a costly venture for her, in terms of time, being away from a young family, and just getting there.

Now, the time had come. She had a conference to attend, and I was happy to play second fiddle.

After the hugs and a few tears, she settled in the uncomfortable bedside chair.

“You don’t look very different than the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Hospitals have perfected the art of hiding the worst of it, but it’s true. The swelling had receded, the physios have revived the muscles, and I have a little movement again.”

“The injuries are not permanent?”

“Oh, they’re permanent, but not as bad as first thought.”

“Pity my mother isn’t here.”

“She was, day after day, through the darkest period. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But your mother is an independent woman, and she has always been free to do what she wants, and I would not have had it any other way.”

“But deserting you in the middle of all this…”

“It’s been very debilitating on her. I can understand her reasons, and so should you. She will still be your mother no matter what happens to us.”

There had been a number of phone calls, from each of the children, decrying her actions after she had sent a text message to each of them telling them what she was doing. She had not told them she was leaving, in so many word, but leaving the door ajar, perhaps to allay their fears she was deserting them too. Annabel had been furious. The other two, not so much.

“And this latest development?”

I had also told her about the miracle worker, and the possibilities, without trying to get hopes up.

“On a scale of one to ten, it’s a three. We’ve been here before, so I’m going to save the excitement for when it happens, if it happens.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

It was a question I’d asked myself a number of times, one that I didn’t want an answer to. Hope was staving it off, each day a new day of discovery, and a day closer to the idea I might walk again. I had to believe it would happen, if not the next day, the next week, month, year, that it would eventually happen.

For now, all I had to do was stand on my own two feet.

It was ironic, in a way, that simple statement. ‘Stand on your own two feet’. Right then, it seemed so near, and yet, at the same time, so far away.

I didn’t answer that question, but did what I usually did with visitors, run a distraction and talk about everything else. This visit was no exception. I had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s odd how some call the day of momentous events D-Day because to me nothing would be more momentous than the invasion of France during the second world war.

Others were not quite of the same opinion. It was going to be a momentous day.

It started the same as any other.

The morning routine when the duty nurse came to do the checks. Then the physio, now a permanent fixture mid-morning, just after the tea lady arrived. Deliberate, I thought, to deprive me of my tea break, and some unbelievably delicious coconut cookies.

Then the routine changed, and the escort arrived to take me down to the room where the physio had set up an obstacle course. It looked like one, and I’d told him so when I first saw it, and he had said by the time he was finished with me, I’d be able to go from start to finish without breaking a sweat.

In my mind perhaps, but not with this broken body. I didn’t say that because I was meant to be positive.

An entourage arrived for the main event. I would have been happier to fail in front of the doctor, the miracle worker, and the physio, but it seemed everyone wanted a front row seat. If it worked, the physio confided in me, there was fame and fortune being mentioned in Lancet, what was a prestigious medical journal.

Expectations were running high.

The physio had gone through the program at least a hundred times, and the previous day we had got to the point where I was sitting on the side of the bed. We’d tried this ordinary manoeuvre several times, previously without success under my own steam but this morning, for some reason it was different.

I was able to sit up, and then, with a struggle move my legs part of the way, and with a little help for the rest.

What was encouraging, was being able to swing my legs a short distance. IT was those simple things that everyone could do without thinking, that had seemed impossible not a month before, that got people excited. I didn’t know how I felt other than I missed those simple things.

Then the moment had arrived. Hushed silence.

There was a structure in place. All I had to do was pulled myself across, at the same time sliding off the bed and into a standing position. There was a safety harness attached so that if my grip slipped it would prevent me from falling.

It was probably not the time to tell them the pain in my lower back was getting worse.

So, like I’d been instructed, and going one step further than the day before, I reached out, grabbed the bars and pulled myself up and over, at the same time, sliding off the side of the bed. I could feel the tug of the safety harness which told me I had left the safety of the bed, and was in mid motion.

I could feel my legs straightening, and then very softly landing on the floor, the safety harness letting my body drop down slowly.

The pain increased exponentially as the weight came down onto my legs, but my body had stopped moving. I could not feel the tightness of the harness, but a rather odd sensation in my legs.

All that time I had been concentrating so hard that I had heard nothing, not even the encouraging words from the physio.

Until I realised, from the noise around me, that it had worked. I was standing on my own two feet, albeit a little shakily.

And I heard the physio say, in his inimitable way, “Today you just landed on the moon. Tomorrow, it’s going to be one small step for mankind. Well done.”

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – E is for “Every cloud has a silver lining”

There wasn’t a year went by when I was reminded of a saying that a childhood friend, Jack Mulligan, had one told me, when one door closes another one opens.

I forget why he said that, but I suspect it had something to do with a chip on my shoulder over not being the same as other children in the street.

We were definitely not equal with them, and it had shown. And school could be hell when kids see prey and attack mercilessly.

When I left the school, and the family moved away from Odyssey Falls, I never saw Jack again, though I followed his progress, as well as several others, for a few years, up until I read about a car accident, and not only his death, but that of my first love, Cecilia Zampa.

After that, I forgot about Odyssey Falls, and a life that had not been particularly good.

It took another friend, one I’d made during a stint in the National Guard, to bring back a single memory, and one thing led to another as it inevitably does, until I found myself waking up in the Sad Sack Motel on the city limits of Odyssey Falls, one very cold, snowy morning.

It would not have happened if it had not been snowing so hard, and the road that passed through the city had not been covered in snow.

Not that I knew, the moment I woke up, that I was in Odyssey Falls, we had not passed the sign telling all that they were about to enter the most scenic city in the state, and it could have been anywhere.

“What the hell happened to us?” The croaky voice that was the result of 40 cigarettes a day, sounded startled, and belonged to my travelling companion, Melissa, last name not sure.

“We hit a bank of snow, and the cops said to hole up in the motel until the road was cleared, hopefully this morning sometime.”

“Is there a reason we’re in this bed together?

A good question. Until two days ago I’d never met Melissa before, she had been seeking a lift when I’d stopped at a gas station to fill up, and it beat making the drive by myself.

“Your idea. I said I’d sleep on the floor.”

“Did we…?”

“No. I started on the floor and you took pity on me.”

I saw her glance under the blanket, just to make sure, but she still had most of her clothes on. She rolled over. “What time is it?”

“Still dark. A few hours before it gets light. I’m going out to get some coffee, you want any?”

“God, no. Maybe later.”

I thought I’d got out of the bed without waking her, but obviously the opposite was the case. It had been a strange night, and she had talked in her sleep, and it didn’t take much to realise she had not been treated well by the men in her life. I didn’t sleep much, too many bad dreams myself, and I was heading to the truck stop a few hundred yards up the road.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” I said just before opening the door. There was no reply, so I guess she had gone back to sleep.

..

It was dark and cold, the hour or two before the sun made an appearance. In that dark, it was quiet, the traffic on the road stopped waiting for the snow ploughs to clear the way.

The truck stop stood out like a beacon in the night, like a light drawing an insect towards it on a hot summers night. A find memory popped into my head and was gone again by the time I reached the door.

It was bright inside, and busy, a lot of stalled drivers taking the forced down time to get breakfast. I wandered up to the counter and sat on one of the well-worn stools.

Back in my day, this place was all,shiny and new, and the place to go and meet up with others before getting into mischief. The city had been in its heyday then, when it was a stopover for those going east to west or vice versa, and there were a dozen cafes and even more motels.

This appeared to be the last, showing its age, and perhaps if the snow had not cut the road, would be empty. When the new turnpike had been built, 20 miles south, the effect on the city had been catastrophic, even more than when the timber mill closed after all the trees had been cut down.

The two events had reduced the population from a peak of 200,000, down to the 8,109 today, turning it into a veritable ghost town. Its halcyon days adorned the walls in photographs, now faded and wrinkled.

As soon as I sat down, one of the two women behind the counter noticed and came over, a half full pit if percolated coffee in one hand and a cup on a saucer in the other.

She looked tired, not in the way that indicated the last hour of a 12-hour shift, but tired of life.

She put the cup in front of me, and said, “coffee?”

I nodded, and she poured.

“Milk, sugar?”

“No.”

It was then I noticed the signature white tuft of hair that all the Zampa women had. This one had to be Cecilia’s younger sister, Marilyn.

I saw her giving me the once over, as if I had one of those familiar faces.

“Martin?” If she was Marilyn, she would have to recognise me, even though I was older and half the weight. She knew of my unrequited love for her sister and had, like many others, derided me for it

“Marilyn?”

“Ain’t seen you in a lifetime.”

“A mistake I assure you. Wasn’t expecting a prom queen to be a waitress in a dump like this.”

“OK, so I deserved that. I was a different person back then and believe me God has been punishing me ever since. The burgers are quite good here, believe it or not.”

“For breakfast?”

“You’d be surprised.”

I probably would, so I ordered it on her recommendation, and she went off to the kitchen. I was expecting her to yell it out across the room, but she didn’t.

Whilst mulling over the coffee, I tried assembling the history we shared, but it was only bits and pieces. The best I could remember was her sister being sympathetic towards me, but Marilyn, being the one who hung out with the football team, and the quarterback prom king, had made my life miserable.

She was far more beautiful than her sister but had that mean streak that every girl who knew she would be the most desired girl in school had towards people like me.

Fated too to marry the quarterback who had been drafted into a team that was a steppingstone towards fame and fortune, she had foolishly allowed herself to get pregnant, and then dumped when the lad left town. From what I remembered reading afterwards, it was the only child she had, and had never married since.

The quarterback, he wrecked his knee and tumbled out of favour and the big time, only to return to town and end up working in his father’s factory, at a sight less that he would have got in the big league.

She came back and dumped the burger in front of me and refilled the coffee cup. It was black and very strong, and I could feel it waking me up, and to an extent sober me up. I was lucky the cops had not realised I’d been drinking, and that was the cause of the accident, and equally lucky that no one else had been involved.

It was the sum of my life, going on benders and losing whole weeks at a time. It might have been the catalyst for finding myself back in the one place I said I’d never return. But the mind does play tricks, and it had decided the only place I was going to find salvation was this place.

And if that was the case, I don’t think I was going to find salvation.

..

When daylight broke and turned the darkness into a sea of whiteness, I’d finished. She’d been right, the hamburgers were good.

I paid the check and climbed back into my anorak. It had started snowing again, and it would be cold. Then, outside the door, it took a moment to remember which way the motel was.

Behind me I heard the swish of the automatic doors open and close, then Marilyn, “where are you staying?”

“Briefly at the Sad Sack, until the road clears.”

“Not staying?”

“There’s nothing to see or stay for. My parents live in Florida, my brother and sister somewhere in Europe and Asia respectively. There’s nothing here.”

“In a once thriving city, you’re not right, once everything closed down, and the new turnpike opened, people started drifting away, and now the only people we see are those that have lost their way. As for our generation, everyone has gone, except those who have nowhere to go.”

“I thought you had that dream of going to Hollywood.”

If I remembered correctly, she had been the star of several stage productions, and was quite good. Everyone had been impressed with her singing and dancing, and the drama teacher
was going to talk to a friend in the business.

“Me and a thousand others. Being good in a backwater doesn’t guarantee you anything but heartache, and disappointment. Then my mother got cancer and I had to come back to look after her, and work in the motel. I had my chance, and it didn’t work out.”

“For what it’s worth, everything I tried turned to crap. From what I’ve read, all of us had the same bad luck. You still own the motel?”

“My mother died, then dad, which was no surprise. Now my brother runs it, let’s me stay there, and the mean bastard makes me pay rent. You should come visit before you leave. Unless you’re married or something.”

“Once, but she found someone else, more successful. But my heart wasn’t in it, there was no one after Cecilia.”

“She liked you, you know, but she had aspirations that were never realistic.”

“What about you?”

“That’s a story that requires copious quantities of alcohol to relate. And time. If you change your mind, come and see me, it’d be nice to see a familiar face.”

“Walk you home?” It seemed almost a novel idea.

“Why not?”

..

When I got back to the room, it looked like a bomb had gone off in it.

Melissa was not in the room, and when I checked she was not in the bathroom either, that was a bigger mess. She had used all the towels and left them lying in a sopping heap in the corner. The sink had strands of black hair.

I came back out of the bathroom and was hit by the heady aroma of perfume. Had she spilled it on the floor, there was a stain beside the bed. On the bedside table was a scribbled note.

‘A salesman staying next door said he was leaving, and I hitched a ride with him. Thanks for the ride and room.’

Although I’d not expected any recompense, leaving a few dollars might have been an acceptable gesture, but she had not. I shrugged. I was considering leaving myself right after having a shower, but there didn’t seem to be the same desire to leave in a hurry.

Perhaps seeing Marylin and being reminded of Cecelia might have done that.

I took a last look at the room from the doorway, then pulled the door shut. At the very least I needed new towels.

Three doors up I ran into Marylin now changed into a cleaner’s uniform, and dragging a large cleaning car with, yes, new towels.

“No rest for the wicked then?”

“The cleaning lady rostered on today didn’t turn up for work. I don’t blame her. Sleep will have to wait. You are leaving now?”

“No. My travelling companion of a few days has up and left after using all the towels.”

She pulled two off the top of the pile and handed them to me. “Does this mean you’re staying?”

“For a day or two maybe. I have to go and see the old house where we lived, and you did intimate you had a story to tell, and I’m a sucker for stories.”

“Then when I get off shift I’ll call you. Every cloud eh?”

I had no idea what that meant, nor cared. For the moment I had something else to care about, other than the fact I was dying. My mind went briefly back to the doctor’s surgery a week before. The doctor delivered the news deadpan, and I took it in numbly. It had only hit home that morning just before I’d got out of bed.

The reason for coming home, the only home I’d ever known. Maybe now I could come to terms with it. Marylin smiled at me when I looked back, just before I went into the room. Perhaps that was another reason my subconscious had brought me here, to see Cecilia’s sister, to be reminded of what I’d once felt. Perhaps I’d felt that for her sister too.

Only time would tell, and although I had little of it left, it was time to take a few chances. Then I realised what she had said, that ‘every cloud had a silver lining’.

I looked up, just as the snow started again. I think I finally realised what fate was telling me, and for the first time since being told the bad news, I didn’t feel angry or sad, that everything would be the way it was meant to be.


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – F is for “For heaven’s sake…”

It was a combination of circumstances, not all related, but coming at me out of left field, circumstances that would prevent me from going home when I said I would.

I had every intention of getting there and as testament to that, I had got to the airport with baggage two hours before departure time, and had reached the departure gate with 20 minutes to spare, ready to board the plane.

I’d even got a business class ticket so I could travel in style.

What precipitated the set of circumstances? A simple phone call. I should have turned it off five minutes before boarding, but I didn’t but because I’d forgotten to, simply because I’d been distracted.

The call was from Penelope, my hard working and self-sacrificing personal assistant. I had offered to take her with me so we could work on a business plan that had to be presented the day after I was scheduled to return, but she had declined, which when I thought about it, if she hadn’t it might have created problems for both of us.

With a huge restructure going on, I was running behind in getting it completed, and had promised to finish it while at home.

The call: to tell me I had left a folder with vital research back on my desk, and she coming to the airport to deliver it, and she was, in fact, was in the terminal building when the boarding call came.

When I met her at the gate, only a few passengers had to be loaded. Being business class had afforded me a few extra minutes. File delivered, I left her looking exasperated and headed down the boarding ramp.

I was last aboard, and seconds after being seated, the door was closed.

I quickly typed and sent a message to tell everyone I was on the plane, eliciting two responses. My mother was glad that I was finally coming, the other from my elder brother, saying he would believe it when he saw me.

It was not without reason; I’d been in this situation before; on the plane ready to go.

Last time the plane didn’t leave the gate, a small problem that caused a big delay, so much so, I couldn’t get home.

Not this time. There was a slight lurch as the push tractor started pushing the plane back from the gate. A minute or so later the pilot fired up the engines, a sure sign of a definite departure. Nothing could stop us now.

It was a reassuring vibration that ran through the plane before the engines settled into a steady whine, a sign of an older plane that had flown many miles in the past and would into the future.

We stopped while the push tractor was disengaged and then the engines picked up speed and we lurched forward, heading towards the runway for take-off. In some airports this could take a long time, and tonight it seemed to take forever.

I looked out the window and saw a backdrop of lights against the darkness, but no indication where we were. It didn’t look like the end of the runway because I could not see any other planes waiting to take off.

Then the engines revved louder and for a pronged period. We didn’t move, but remained where we were, until the engines returned to what might be called idling speed

It was followed by an announcement from the pilot, “This is the captain speaking. We have encountered an anomaly with one of the engines, so to be on the safe side, we are returning to the gate and will have the engineers have a look at it. I do not anticipate this should take longer than 30 minutes.”

A collective groan went through the airplane. Those savvy with these problems would know that the odds were we would not be leaving tonight. The airport curfew would see to that.

But a miracle could still occur.

The plane then started back to the terminal. Another message from the pilot told us we would not be going back to the gate, but to a holding area. Time to have a glass of champagne the steward was offering before going back to the terminal for what, an interminable wait.

It seemed the gods did not want me to go back home.

When we got back to the parking spot, three buses and four delays later, I headed for one of the several bars to get a drink, and perhaps something decent to eat.

Then I saw Penelope, sitting by herself, a glass of champagne sitting half drunk in front of her.

“What are you doing here?” I said as I slid onto the stool beside her.

She started, as if she had been somewhere else, and turned to see who it was. The faraway look turned into a smile when she recognised me. “Getting drunk.”

“I thought you were going home.” A nod in the direction of the bartender, followed by pointing to her glass and indicating I wanted two, got instant service.

“I saw an ex heading to a plane with his latest squeeze. Made me feel depressed. I heard your plane was returning so I decided to wait. Better to get drunk with someone you know than drink by yourself, or someone you don’t. I’ve had three offers already.”

I wasn’t surprised. She was very attractive, the sort of woman who was the most popular at any of the work functions but was equally surprising was that she was not with any of those potential suitors. In fact, as far as I knew, she was not in a relationship.

“No one at home to amuse you?” It was not the sort of question I should be asking, because it was really none of my business.

It elicited a sideways glance, as if I stepped over an invisible line.

“Sorry, none of my business.”

She finished off the glass in front of her, just as the new round arrived in front of her. I gave the bartender my credit card and asked him to start a tab. I’d just heard that the plane was going to be another two hours before we’d be leaving.

“I live with two other girls, but they are more interested in finding stray men and getting wasted, not necessarily in that order, and that’s not what I want to do.”

“Get wasted or find stray men?”

I was not sure how anyone had the time and inclination to do that, but a few weeks back I spent two evenings with a friend of mine whose marriage had fallen apart. The people there seemed either desperate or looking for a one-night stand. It had amused me to discover most of them were married, and not divorced, and that the girls knew what to expect.

“Both apparently.”

“How do you expect to find the man of your dreams if you don’t go looking.”

“I am, this place seems as good as any, but the man of my dreams doesn’t exist.”

The bemused expression and the tone of her voice told me she had had more than the one drink before I got there. Even then, judging from several previous parties for work we had attended, she had a much greater capacity for alcohol than I had.

She finished off the glass just brought, and seconds later her eyes seemed glassy. Perhaps it was time for me to put her in a cab and send her home.

“Another,” she said, “and then you can be responsible for me.”

I had no idea what that meant, and I think, judging by the facial expressions, she didn’t really care.

“Perhaps…”

She didn’t let me finish. “Perhaps you should buy me another drink and lighten up.” And the look that came with it told me not to argue the point.

I got the bartender’s attention, and he responded by bringing two fresh glasses and a bottle. I told him to leave it. It gave me a minute or so to contemplate what she meant by ‘lighten up’. I was so used to seeing her work ethic and diligence, this was a different side to her.

I took a sip and could feel her looking at me. A glance took in the near permanent bemused expression.

“Are you going to be alright getting home?” It was probably not the question I should have asked, but in the back of my mind there was a recent briefing given to all of management on the subject of sexual harassment and intra office romances.

“I’m fine. It’s not as if I do this a lot, but the last week has been difficult. Not only for me, but for you too. But you have to admit you put yourself under a lot of pressure.”

She was starting to sound like my conscience. It was something I’d been thinking about on the way to the airport, but decided it was part of the job, and I knew when I accepted the position what it would involve. My predecessor, much older than I was, had fallen on his sword, the pressure destroying his marriage and almost his life.

“So I said, lamely, It goes with the job, unfortunately.”

She shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. They might think it does, but they don’t care. They sit in their ivory tower and watch their minions crash and burn. There’s always someone else waiting in the wings to take your place, believe me.”

It was an interesting perspective, but where did it come from? I knew she had been at the corporation for a number of years, and I had been lucky enough to draw the long straw when having her assigned to me as my PA when I took the position. One of the other executives had lamented my good fortune, but he had also said she was one of the few who were there to guide those management considered were management prospects.

I just thought I was lucky.

“I might end up in that ivory tower one day.”

“Why?”

She turned to look directly at me. It made me uncomfortable now, as it had on other occasions, and I had begun to think it might have something to do with unspoken feelings. I liked her, but I doubted that was reciprocated. And, after the lecture on office romances, I promptly put those feelings in the bottom drawer and locked it.

“Doesn’t everyone aspire to be the best, and climb to the top of the corporate ladder?”

“For that you have to be devious and ruthless, and from what I’ve seen, you’re neither. You’ve heard the expression ‘good guys come last’. It’s true.”

I was guessing from the people she had worked for, she had firsthand experience. My predecessor was a ‘good guy’ and some said he was eaten alive by the office predators. I knew who they were, and avoided them. Perhaps she knew something I didn’t, but when would she have told me? Not tonight, no one could have predicted the plane would break down.

“You’re telling me this now, why?”

“You’re smarter than all of those above you put together. You don’t need them, but they need you. But, you won’t get any concessions, not until you get near the top. By then you will have had to sell your soul to the devil.”

Good to know, on one hand I was about to see my soul to the devil, and on the other that I was smart, just not smart enough to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing.

I noticed she hadn’t touched the latest glass of champagne. Nor was she the languid barfly she’d pretended to be earlier.

“You’re advice, if I’m listening correctly, is that I should be looking for another job.”

“Actually, you shouldn’t be listening to me at all. Too many drinks and I pontificate. Some people become happy, I become,” she shrugged, “unhappy. Take no notice.” She swung around to the front and picked up the glass.

“OK.” I turned around to look at the departures board to see my flight had been cancelled, and I should go to the check in counter. “My plane is completely broken, so it looks like I’m staying home.”

“Or you could take me to dinner.” She looked sideways again, the bemused expression back.

“Wouldn’t that be inappropriate?”

“Only if you were in upper management, married, and asking me to have an affair. Last I looked you’re not in upper management, not married, so there’s no hint of an affair. For heaven’s sake, it’s only dinner.”

She was right on all counts, and it was only dinner.

“Why not?” I said, more to myself than to her.

“Good. And you’d better get me on the plane too. We need to get that report done, and it’ll be an excuse to stay at a hotel. I know you wouldn’t want to stay in your old room at your parents’ house.”

She was right about that too, I had long outgrown them, and staying at home would only lead to arguments. “How could you possibly know that?”

She smiled. “You talk in your sleep.”

© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – E is for “Every cloud has a silver lining”

There wasn’t a year went by when I was reminded of a saying that a childhood friend, Jack Mulligan, had one told me, when one door closes another one opens.

I forget why he said that, but I suspect it had something to do with a chip on my shoulder over not being the same as other children in the street.

We were definitely not equal with them, and it had shown. And school could be hell when kids see prey and attack mercilessly.

When I left the school, and the family moved away from Odyssey Falls, I never saw Jack again, though I followed his progress, as well as several others, for a few years, up until I read about a car accident, and not only his death, but that of my first love, Cecilia Zampa.

After that, I forgot about Odyssey Falls, and a life that had not been particularly good.

It took another friend, one I’d made during a stint in the National Guard, to bring back a single memory, and one thing led to another as it inevitably does, until I found myself waking up in the Sad Sack Motel on the city limits of Odyssey Falls, one very cold, snowy morning.

It would not have happened if it had not been snowing so hard, and the road that passed through the city had not been covered in snow.

Not that I knew, the moment I woke up, that I was in Odyssey Falls, we had not passed the sign telling all that they were about to enter the most scenic city in the state, and it could have been anywhere.

“What the hell happened to us?” The croaky voice that was the result of 40 cigarettes a day, sounded startled, and belonged to my travelling companion, Melissa, last name not sure.

“We hit a bank of snow, and the cops said to hole up in the motel until the road was cleared, hopefully this morning sometime.”

“Is there a reason we’re in this bed together?

A good question. Until two days ago I’d never met Melissa before, she had been seeking a lift when I’d stopped at a gas station to fill up, and it beat making the drive by myself.

“Your idea. I said I’d sleep on the floor.”

“Did we…?”

“No. I started on the floor and you took pity on me.”

I saw her glance under the blanket, just to make sure, but she still had most of her clothes on. She rolled over. “What time is it?”

“Still dark. A few hours before it gets light. I’m going out to get some coffee, you want any?”

“God, no. Maybe later.”

I thought I’d got out of the bed without waking her, but obviously the opposite was the case. It had been a strange night, and she had talked in her sleep, and it didn’t take much to realise she had not been treated well by the men in her life. I didn’t sleep much, too many bad dreams myself, and I was heading to the truck stop a few hundred yards up the road.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” I said just before opening the door. There was no reply, so I guess she had gone back to sleep.

..

It was dark and cold, the hour or two before the sun made an appearance. In that dark, it was quiet, the traffic on the road stopped waiting for the snow ploughs to clear the way.

The truck stop stood out like a beacon in the night, like a light drawing an insect towards it on a hot summers night. A find memory popped into my head and was gone again by the time I reached the door.

It was bright inside, and busy, a lot of stalled drivers taking the forced down time to get breakfast. I wandered up to the counter and sat on one of the well-worn stools.

Back in my day, this place was all,shiny and new, and the place to go and meet up with others before getting into mischief. The city had been in its heyday then, when it was a stopover for those going east to west or vice versa, and there were a dozen cafes and even more motels.

This appeared to be the last, showing its age, and perhaps if the snow had not cut the road, would be empty. When the new turnpike had been built, 20 miles south, the effect on the city had been catastrophic, even more than when the timber mill closed after all the trees had been cut down.

The two events had reduced the population from a peak of 200,000, down to the 8,109 today, turning it into a veritable ghost town. Its halcyon days adorned the walls in photographs, now faded and wrinkled.

As soon as I sat down, one of the two women behind the counter noticed and came over, a half full pit if percolated coffee in one hand and a cup on a saucer in the other.

She looked tired, not in the way that indicated the last hour of a 12-hour shift, but tired of life.

She put the cup in front of me, and said, “coffee?”

I nodded, and she poured.

“Milk, sugar?”

“No.”

It was then I noticed the signature white tuft of hair that all the Zampa women had. This one had to be Cecilia’s younger sister, Marilyn.

I saw her giving me the once over, as if I had one of those familiar faces.

“Martin?” If she was Marilyn, she would have to recognise me, even though I was older and half the weight. She knew of my unrequited love for her sister and had, like many others, derided me for it

“Marilyn?”

“Ain’t seen you in a lifetime.”

“A mistake I assure you. Wasn’t expecting a prom queen to be a waitress in a dump like this.”

“OK, so I deserved that. I was a different person back then and believe me God has been punishing me ever since. The burgers are quite good here, believe it or not.”

“For breakfast?”

“You’d be surprised.”

I probably would, so I ordered it on her recommendation, and she went off to the kitchen. I was expecting her to yell it out across the room, but she didn’t.

Whilst mulling over the coffee, I tried assembling the history we shared, but it was only bits and pieces. The best I could remember was her sister being sympathetic towards me, but Marilyn, being the one who hung out with the football team, and the quarterback prom king, had made my life miserable.

She was far more beautiful than her sister but had that mean streak that every girl who knew she would be the most desired girl in school had towards people like me.

Fated too to marry the quarterback who had been drafted into a team that was a steppingstone towards fame and fortune, she had foolishly allowed herself to get pregnant, and then dumped when the lad left town. From what I remembered reading afterwards, it was the only child she had, and had never married since.

The quarterback, he wrecked his knee and tumbled out of favour and the big time, only to return to town and end up working in his father’s factory, at a sight less that he would have got in the big league.

She came back and dumped the burger in front of me and refilled the coffee cup. It was black and very strong, and I could feel it waking me up, and to an extent sober me up. I was lucky the cops had not realised I’d been drinking, and that was the cause of the accident, and equally lucky that no one else had been involved.

It was the sum of my life, going on benders and losing whole weeks at a time. It might have been the catalyst for finding myself back in the one place I said I’d never return. But the mind does play tricks, and it had decided the only place I was going to find salvation was this place.

And if that was the case, I don’t think I was going to find salvation.

..

When daylight broke and turned the darkness into a sea of whiteness, I’d finished. She’d been right, the hamburgers were good.

I paid the check and climbed back into my anorak. It had started snowing again, and it would be cold. Then, outside the door, it took a moment to remember which way the motel was.

Behind me I heard the swish of the automatic doors open and close, then Marilyn, “where are you staying?”

“Briefly at the Sad Sack, until the road clears.”

“Not staying?”

“There’s nothing to see or stay for. My parents live in Florida, my brother and sister somewhere in Europe and Asia respectively. There’s nothing here.”

“In a once thriving city, you’re not right, once everything closed down, and the new turnpike opened, people started drifting away, and now the only people we see are those that have lost their way. As for our generation, everyone has gone, except those who have nowhere to go.”

“I thought you had that dream of going to Hollywood.”

If I remembered correctly, she had been the star of several stage productions, and was quite good. Everyone had been impressed with her singing and dancing, and the drama teacher
was going to talk to a friend in the business.

“Me and a thousand others. Being good in a backwater doesn’t guarantee you anything but heartache, and disappointment. Then my mother got cancer and I had to come back to look after her, and work in the motel. I had my chance, and it didn’t work out.”

“For what it’s worth, everything I tried turned to crap. From what I’ve read, all of us had the same bad luck. You still own the motel?”

“My mother died, then dad, which was no surprise. Now my brother runs it, let’s me stay there, and the mean bastard makes me pay rent. You should come visit before you leave. Unless you’re married or something.”

“Once, but she found someone else, more successful. But my heart wasn’t in it, there was no one after Cecilia.”

“She liked you, you know, but she had aspirations that were never realistic.”

“What about you?”

“That’s a story that requires copious quantities of alcohol to relate. And time. If you change your mind, come and see me, it’d be nice to see a familiar face.”

“Walk you home?” It seemed almost a novel idea.

“Why not?”

..

When I got back to the room, it looked like a bomb had gone off in it.

Melissa was not in the room, and when I checked she was not in the bathroom either, that was a bigger mess. She had used all the towels and left them lying in a sopping heap in the corner. The sink had strands of black hair.

I came back out of the bathroom and was hit by the heady aroma of perfume. Had she spilled it on the floor, there was a stain beside the bed. On the bedside table was a scribbled note.

‘A salesman staying next door said he was leaving, and I hitched a ride with him. Thanks for the ride and room.’

Although I’d not expected any recompense, leaving a few dollars might have been an acceptable gesture, but she had not. I shrugged. I was considering leaving myself right after having a shower, but there didn’t seem to be the same desire to leave in a hurry.

Perhaps seeing Marylin and being reminded of Cecelia might have done that.

I took a last look at the room from the doorway, then pulled the door shut. At the very least I needed new towels.

Three doors up I ran into Marylin now changed into a cleaner’s uniform, and dragging a large cleaning car with, yes, new towels.

“No rest for the wicked then?”

“The cleaning lady rostered on today didn’t turn up for work. I don’t blame her. Sleep will have to wait. You are leaving now?”

“No. My travelling companion of a few days has up and left after using all the towels.”

She pulled two off the top of the pile and handed them to me. “Does this mean you’re staying?”

“For a day or two maybe. I have to go and see the old house where we lived, and you did intimate you had a story to tell, and I’m a sucker for stories.”

“Then when I get off shift I’ll call you. Every cloud eh?”

I had no idea what that meant, nor cared. For the moment I had something else to care about, other than the fact I was dying. My mind went briefly back to the doctor’s surgery a week before. The doctor delivered the news deadpan, and I took it in numbly. It had only hit home that morning just before I’d got out of bed.

The reason for coming home, the only home I’d ever known. Maybe now I could come to terms with it. Marylin smiled at me when I looked back, just before I went into the room. Perhaps that was another reason my subconscious had brought me here, to see Cecilia’s sister, to be reminded of what I’d once felt. Perhaps I’d felt that for her sister too.

Only time would tell, and although I had little of it left, it was time to take a few chances. Then I realised what she had said, that ‘every cloud had a silver lining’.

I looked up, just as the snow started again. I think I finally realised what fate was telling me, and for the first time since being told the bad news, I didn’t feel angry or sad, that everything would be the way it was meant to be.


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – D is for “Do you know where you are?”

D is for “Do you know where we are?”

Bus tours were hectic at the best of times, so many stops in so short a time. It was ideal if you wanted a taste of each country, then come back later to explore those you liked the most, but you have to be willing to make sacrifices.

Then, on tour, it does not bode well if you embark on the tour with your relationship teetering on the edge of disaster. If relations were tense before, then by the second or third day, it was going to be like a volcano erupting if anything went wrong.

It was my idea we go away for a short, sharp tour, what was to be the first together for nearly 20 years together. The children had grown up and we had sacrificed travel until they had left the nest. Eloise was transitioning from being a full-time mother to back in the workforce, and I was scaling back so we could spend more time together.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the memo that told everyone, but me, that our relationship was foundering. It was not as if I didn’t ask the right questions, it was just I interpreted the answers incorrectly. It thought the measured reluctance to go was her reluctance to be away from her grandchildren.

It was not.

There were other factors in play, those little annoyances that caused discussions to become arguments, and then glowering resentment. That summed up the mornings where we had to be up and ready early to have breakfast, pack and be ready to embark the bus at an early hour, following late nights.

Eloise was not at her best under those conditions. Day two had been a trial, day three a battle, and day four, well, that’s where everything went wrong. The alarm didn’t go off, we got up late, and by the time we came down, the bus had gone.

Yes, we literally missed the bus.

I went to bed on day three with a premonition. It was something she said in response to a comment I made, one that didn’t register at the time, but came back to haunt me in the dead of night.

She said, in not so many words, if I had not dragged her on this wild goose chase…and stopped there, perhaps realising she was about to say something she shouldn’t. I thought it was to spare my feelings.

It was not.

In the last few months, after getting a promotion at her workplace, a company run by my best friend who had always said she could come and work for him when she was ready to go back to work, that it was too soon to go away.

Even when she said it, I missed the implication.

There had been late nights and trips away, the added responsibility, she had said. She said she wanted to make the right impression. Tony, my friend, had said that she was perfect for the job, and said she was in good hands to learn the trade. I thought, given the new independence and responsibility she would recover from the slight depression from no longer being needed.

At three in the morning, staring at the ceiling, I finally got it. The change in her had been remarkable. She was happy again with a job she liked and a place to be.

So was Tony, whom I had noticed over the same journey, after being dumped by his wife, had been in a similar sort of funk.

It didn’t take rocket science to see what was happening.

Down in the breakfast room, we were having coffee. There was a smug expression on her face, one that told me that she had no intention of continuing this farce, and after getting no sleep, I was both tired and where I should be annoyed, I was a little numb.

“Should I Call the tour director, ask him if we should try to re-join the tour, or should we just let it slide?”

She gave me a look of disdain, or what I thought was disdain. I was perhaps feeling a little judgemental.

“If the bus had not been leaving so early, we might have made it. Perhaps it was not a good idea to pick one that requires us to be up at the crack of dawn.”

Any other time, I might have got annoyed, but now I knew, or thought I knew what was driving her attitude, I just sighed inwardly and put on my happy face. “Then what do you suggest we do?”

“We’re somewhere in Germany, and we don’t speak the language. It might be a little difficult…”

“You forget I travel to Europe a lot. I might not be fluent, but I have got a smattering of a few of the languages.” Particularly Italian, but that was down to spending time with Gabriella, one of the subsidiary managers I had to deal with.

“I’m surprised then you wanted to come here for a holiday.”

“It was for your benefit, and mine to a lesser extent, simply because travelling to these countries doesn’t mean I got to tour them. You know how it is, meetings from dawn to dusk and not much time for anything else. Besides, I was happy to wait until you could come with me before I did any sightseeing.”

Her phone was sitting on the table, and suddenly rang. She almost managed to snatch it up before I saw the caller ID. Tony. She disconnected the call without answering. It was not the first time it had rung.

My turn to give her a look of disdain. “You should have answered it.”

“It was nothing.”

I had my phone with me and looked up Tony’s number then dialled it.

“George, this is a surprise. How’s the trip going?” He said, knowing who it was calling him.

“I’m sure Eloise has kept you fully informed, but from my perspective, not so great.”

I could feel Eloise staring at me.

“I’m sorry to hear that, but she…”

“Tony, don’t insult my intelligence. I know. And I’m not angry or annoyed or anything really. I blame myself for being so stupid. I thought I’d call you, since she didn’t answer, to tell you she’ll be coming home. I’ll take her to Berlin and get her a flight back as soon as practicable. We can talk, if you like, when I get back, but that might not be for a while.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“It probably is, Tony, but like I said, I’m neither angry or annoyed. I’ll let you get back to work, and Eloise will no doubt call you soon.”

I disconnected the call and put the phone on the table.

“You’ve got it all wrong, George.” It was a measured response, and one I expected.

“The last three or so months tell me a different story, Eloise. You’re happy, and it had nothing to do with me. All I seem to do is make you angry, and I can see why now. I have to accept responsibility for the mistakes I’ve made. None of this is your fault.”

“Tony is a good friend, George, but it’s not what you think. I might have thought once of twice about having a relationship with him, he certainly thinks we are heading in that direction, but I haven’t done anything, nor would I.”

“He makes you happy, Eloise. I don’t and believe me that’s all I want for you. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in my own little world to notice how much we’ve drifted apart. AS I said, that’s more my fault, not yours. And I don’t blame you for wanting more than I can give you.”

“Don’t you love me anymore?”

“You always were, are, and will be the only one Eloise. That will never change. It doesn’t matter what I think or feel, you have to decide what is best for you, and I want nothing other than what’s best for you. If that means being with someone else, then so be it. I will not stand in your way, or make things difficult for you.”

“And if that’s not what I want?”

“What do you want?”

“To hear you tell me that you love me, like you used to tell me.”

“I thought you knew that.”

“You stopped saying it. And, yes, you have been in your own little world, and I expect that was because I spent too much time looking after the children, and being too tired to make time for you, so I too should accept some responsibility for the mess we are in.”

Not what I was expecting to hear.

“Like I said, you don’t have to make excuses, the fault is mine.”

“No, it’s not that simple. You know, it seems stupid that we had to travel umpteen thousand miles to the middle of nowhere, just to finally have a meaningful conversation. Do you actually know where we are, because I don’t. And what’s strange to me is that I don’t really care. I’m going to say this once, George, so listen carefully. I do not love Tony, nor am I having an affair with him. What he thinks is going on is his problem, not mine. I have a husband, and I care as much about him as he cares about me now that he has finally told me. I do not want to continue this bus tour, but I do want to see Europe, so firstly, we have the room until eleven this morning which gives us three hours to reacquaint ourselves with each other. Then you’re going to hire a car, and we are going to find our own way, perhaps get a little lost along the way, and the best thing about that is that we will get lost together.”

She stood, held out her hand, and said, “Now, come with me, and we shall speak of this no more.”

How could I possibly refuse such an offer?


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – C is for “Call me!”

You know what it’s like on Monday morning, especially if it’s very cold and the double glazing is failing miserably to keep the cold out.

It was warm under three blankets thick sheets and a doona, and I didn’t want to get up.

It doesn’t help if in the last few months, the dream job you once had had turned into a drudge, and there was any number of reasons to stay home rather than go into the office. Once, that was trying to find an excuse to stay home because you’d rather go to work.

That was a long time ago or felt like it.

My cell phone vibrated, an incoming message, or more likely a reminder. I reached out into the icy wasteland that was the distance from under the covers to my phone on the bedside table. It was very cold out there, and for a moment I regretted that impulse to check.

It was a reminder; I had a meeting at HR with the manager. I had thought I might be eligible for redundancy since the company was in the throes of a cost cutting exercise. Once I might have been apprehensive, but now, given my recent change in department and responsibility, I was kind of hoping now that it was.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Time to get up sleepy head. You have a meeting to go to, not one to be late.”

It felt strange to wake up with someone else in the bed. My luck in that department hadn’t been all that hood lately, but something changed, and at the usual Friday night after work drinks at the pub I ran into one of the PA’s I’d seen around, one who was curious to meet me as much as I was to meet her.

One thing had led to another and when I asked her if she wanted to drop in on the way home, she did.

“I’d prefer not to. I can think of better things to do.”

“So, could I but that’s not the point. Five more minutes, then I’m pushing you out.”

She snuggled into my back, and I could feel the warmth of her body, and having the exact opposite effect than she intended. But she was right. It was important, and I had to go. But, in the meantime it was four more minutes and counting.

When you get a call from the head of HR it usually means one of two things, a promotion, or those two dreaded words, ‘you’re fired’, though not usually said with the same dramatic effect.

This year had already been calamitous enough getting sidelined from Mergers and Acquisitions because I’d been usurped. That was the word I was going with, but it was to a certain extent, my fault. I took my eye off the ball, and allowed someone else to make their case.

Of course, it helped that the person was connected to all the right people in the company, and, with the change in Chairman, it was also a matter of removing some of the people who were appointed by the previous incumbent.

I and four of my equivalent managers had been usurped and moved to places where they would have less impact. I had finished up in sales and marketing, and to be quite honest, it was such a step down, I had already decided to leave when the opportunity presented itself.

My assistant manager, who had already put in his resignation, was working out his final two weeks. I told him to take leave until the contract expired, but he was more dedicated than that. He had got in before me and was sitting at his desk a cup of coffee in his hand and another on the desk.

“How many days?”

“Six and counting. What about you? You should be out canvassing. There’s at least three other places I know would be waiting to hear from you.”

“It’s still in the consideration phase.”

“You’re likely to get the chop anyway, with this thing you have with Sharky.”

Sharkey was the HR manager.

You know something I don’t?” I picked up the coffee, removed the lid and took in the aroma.
“They’re downsizing. Broadham had decided to go on a cost cutting exercise, and instead of the suggested efficiencies we put up last year, they’re going with people. I don’t think he quite gets it.”

“You mean my replacement doesn’t know anything about efficiency. He makes a good yes man though, telling Broadham exactly what he wants to hear.”

Broadham, the new Chairman, never did understand that people appointed to important positions needed to have the relevant qualifications and experience. My replacement had neither. That was when the employees loyal to the previous Chairman had started leaving.

We had called it death, whilst Broadham had called it natural attrition. He didn’t quite understand that so far, over 300 years of experience had left, and as much again was in the process of leaving.

“Are you going to tell Sharky you’re leaving?”

“I’ll wait and see what he has to say. I think he knows the ship is sinking.”

There wasn’t much I didn’t know about the current state of the company, and with the departures, I knew it was only a matter of time. Sharky was a good man, but he couldn’t stem the tide.

He also knew the vagaries of profits and share prices, and we had been watching the share price, and the market itself. It was teetering, and in the last few months, parcels of shares were being unloaded, not a lot at one time, but a steady trickle.

That told me that Broadham and his cronies were cashing in while the going was good, and quite possibly were about to steer the ship onto the rocks. The question was who was buying, and that, after some hard research I found to be certain board members. Why, I suspected, was to increase their holdings and leverage, but I don’t think they quite realised that there would be nothing left but worthless stock certificates.

It was evidence, when I finally left, that I would pass on to the relevant authorities.

In the meantime, I had a meeting to go to.

“Best of luck,” my assistant muttered as I passed his desk.

“If I don’t return, I’ll will have been escorted from the building. If that happens, Call me.”

It had happened before. When people were sacked, they were escorted to their office, allowed to pack their belongings, and were then escorted to the front door. It would be an ignominious end to an illustrious career, or so I’d been told by the girl who was no doubt still asleep in my bed.

She had heard the whispers.

The walk to the lift, the traversing of the four floors to the executive level, and then to the outer office where Sharky’s PA sat took all of three minutes. I had hoped it would be longer.

“He’s waiting for you,” she said, “go on in.”

I knocked on the door, then went in, closing it behind me. “Now, sir, what on earth could you want to see me about?


© Charles Heath 2021

The A to Z Challenge – B is for “Because it’s not me”

If the was one fault I had, it was prevarication.

For a long time, I had always been afraid of making a mistake, after I had done exactly that.  They said our mistakes didn’t define us, but that one had.  I had lost the trust of everyone, from my parents to friends.

It was only a small lie, or so I told myself, but it had far reaching ramifications, and almost cost someone their life.  But whilst I believed it was not all that bad, and the police had agreed that anyone who had been put in the same position would have done the same, there were those who didn’t agree.

It was a moment in time I often relived in my mind, over and over, and eventually led to several outcomes.

The first, I left home, the town where up till then I’d lived all of my life, walking away from family and those who used to be friends, knowing that what they said and what they felt were two entirely different things.  For all concerned, it was better that I left, cutting all ties, and make a fresh start, away from those whom I knew would never forget, even though they forgave me.

The second, and most dire, I changed my name, and my history, even how I looked.  Today, I was a very different person to that of thirty years ago.

The third, I moved to another country, and vowed never to return, always looking constantly over my shoulder, expecting someone from the past to find me.  I instinctively knew that I would never escape, that one day a stark reminder would come back and destroy everything.

I picked the one occupation that would keep me both occupied and invisible.

Journalist.

I had started at the bottom, literally writing death notices, and worked my way up to what is ubiquitously known as ‘foreign correspondent’, going to places where no one else would go, those hotbeds of unrest, and war zones, reporting from both sides.

Perhaps it could say I had a death wish, a statement my editor had once said when he came to see me in hospital back in London after I’d been caught up in a rocket attack and repatriated.  He had come to offer me a job back home, to tell me my tour was over.

I declined the opportunity, and he left, shaking his head.

But that was not the only visitor that came to the hospital that day.  The other visitor was an elderly man, immaculately dressed in a pin stripe suit and bowler hat.  It screamed public servant, and the moment I saw him wandering up the passage, a chill ran down my spine.

Although he looked like he was looking for someone else, I knew he would eventually finish up in my doorway.

Five minutes after I first saw him.

When he appeared at the door, I thought about ignoring him, but realised that wasn’t going to change anything.  Besides that, I guess I wanted to know why he would want to see me.

“James Wilson?”

“Would it make any difference if I said no?”  Well, it didn’t mean I couldn’t spar with him, just a little.  “Who are you.”

“Do you mind if I come in?”

I got the impression he would do it anyway, irrespective of what I said.  I said no, and as I suspected he came in anyway, closing the door behind him, then took a minute or two to make himself comfortable in the visitor’s chair, what was an impossible task.

Then, settled, he said, “I understand you have just been repatriated from Syria.”

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It wasn’t common knowledge where I’d come from, so this person knew something about me, which was immediate cause for concern.

“The bane of a reporter trying to cover a dangerous situation,” he said, with just the right amount of levity in his tone.  “I get it, by the way.  I once had that devil may care attitude you need to get the story.  I was chasing a Pulitzer, believe it or not, and used a few of those nine lives in the process.  Which one are you up to?”

I was going to say that awards didn’t matter but among those whom made up the press pack in those God forsaken places, there was an unwritten desire to be rewarded other than by pay.  For me, though, it was not a defining factor.

“Lost count.  But why would that interest you, or whoever it is you represent?  By the way, just who do you represent?”

Second attempt at finding out who this man was.  If he was dodging and weaving, it would suggest a clandestine organisation.

“People who would like to use your unique talent in getting into trouble spots around the world.  We’re not asking you to come work for us exclusively, rather piggyback on the job that you already do so well.”

An unnamed man from an unnamed organisation.  What he was offering wasn’t unheard of, and I had been warned, more than once, that jobs like he was suggesting were more often than not offered to people like me.  With that came one line of advice, turn around and run like hell.

But, with nothing to amuse me in hospital, I was curious.  “Doing what exactly?”

The fact his expression changed indicated my response had taken him by surprise.  Perhaps he was used to being told where to go.  Not yet.  I had this fanciful notion in the back of my mind that what he might offer might get me closer to the story.

“Keeping your eyes and ears open.  We’ll tell you what to look for, all you’ll be doing is looking for evidence.  There will be no need to go looking for trouble, if there’s evidence we ask you to report it, if not, no harm done.”

Not so hard.  If that was all it was.  The trouble was, if something sounds simple, which that did, but inevitably, it was going to be anything but.  I’d heard stories, and the consequences.

“You’re presuming that my editor will send me back.  He just offered me a job at home.”

“I think both of us know you’re not interested in domesticity.  If he isn’t willing to adhere to your wishes, I’m sure we could find someone else who would be willing to take you on.  You have had several offers recently, have you not?”

So, without a doubt, he knew a lot about me, especially if he asked around.  I had had several offers, but I was happy where I was.  I liked the no questions about your past that my current employer had promised.

Yes, looking at the determination on this man’s face, I had no doubt they or he could do what he said.  No one comes to a meeting like this without holding all the cards.  Also, not that I wanted it to be so, It told me that my agreement was not necessarily going to be optional.

But I was happy to dither and find out.  “Since I’m not sure when the hospital is going to discharge me, and the fact I’m not exactly very mobile at the moment, can I consider the proposal.  Right now, as you can imagine, getting back to work is not exactly a priority.”

“Of course.”  He took a card out of his coat pocket and put it on the bedside table.  “By all means.  Call me on that number when you’ve decided.”

He stood.  “It will be a great opportunity.  Thank you for your time.”

Of course, the two impressions I was left with were, one, he had me mixed up with someone else, and two, that I would never see him again.

It was an impossible task, for me at least, because I did not have a poker face, and could rarely carry a lie.  I would be the last person they’d want for the job.

And thinking that, I rolled over, put it out of my mind, and went back to sleep.


© Charles Heath 2021